After fake news come fake ideas
SINGAPORE — I now unfriend purveyors of fake news. The negatron headlines, mixed into my daily curated vacation photos and cat GIFs, drain too much emotional energy.
“Fearless UE alumnus calls out CHR: Why are you silent on terrorists’ crimes in Marawi?” a former friend shared from FilipiNewsPH.net.
That is stupid, I replied. By definition, governments commit human rights violations. Private persons commit crimes. If you see a murder, you call the police, not the Commission on Human Rights. I asked my former friend to stop sharing fake news.
He quickly deleted my reaction, then PM’d (sent a private message) to ask me to specify which of his posts were fake news. When I saw eight FilipiNewsPH.net articles on his wall—shared in the same hour—I saved myself the grief. I clicked unfriend.
Can’t anyone with a high school diploma tell that FilipiNewsPH.net is hardly credible? The article stated no author. The website stated no editor, e-mail or mailing address.
Such anonymous sites follow a now familiar template. First, their names seem deceptively legitimate, if bland, such as Newsinfolearn.com or The Asian Press. Or mimic real networks, such as Fox-News24.com.
Second, they elevate random people into instant authority figures. “Fearless UE alumnus” joins “New York University alumnus,” “Canadian political expert,” “Asia’s political strategist” and even “fearless netizens.” They reverse parody TheOnion.com’s ubiquitous “area man.”
Third, they exaggerate an idea and twist its logic beyond recognition. The CHR ignores criminals. Media are “bias.” Questioning martial law condones extremism.
All these are amplified into one-sided harangues, appealing to emotion to tempt one to share.
Logical consistency is optional. A site might criticize Vice President Leni Robredo for meddling in Marawi City without formal authority, then for abandoning it to help her daughter move into her Harvard dorm.
Trolls of all political stripes use the template. Some are just more entertaining than others.
But strikingly, although the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines’ (CBCP) new fake news list includes FilipiNewsPH.net, the latter’s articles are not fake in the strict sense. The CHR tirade took a true fact, but its interpretation contradicted every basic law and political science textbook.
Thinking Pinoy, also in CBCP’s list, likewise uses heavily skewed analysis more than outright false facts. It is no longer anonymous, though anonymous sites share its posts.
It claimed Rappler is foreign-owned through financial instruments called “Philippine Depositary Receipts” or PDRs. It posted real legal documents, but the convoluted, pseudo-legal commentary contradicted basic explanations of PDRs on the Philippine Stock Exchange website (“Does the CIA own Rappler?”, 2/6/17).
Fake ideas are more subtly dangerous than fake facts. For example, some claim that troops battling Mautes must withdraw if the Supreme Court rules against martial law. This is misleading fake law.
Martial law imposes military rule on civilian government. It has no connection to offensive operations. But the fake doctrine makes any sensible debate impossible.
Worse, fake ideas exploit our democracy’s ground rules. Journalists rebut false facts but not false doctrine. Media present fake doctrines opposite real ones out of a sense of balance, unwittingly legitimizing them.
Similarly, freedom of speech allows punishment for maliciously shared false facts, but protects fake doctrines even when proclaimed out of willful ignorance. Criminal penalties are the wrong tool for distinguishing fake ideas, extremely biased punditry and effective propaganda, and may even suppress dissent if drafted broadly.
We must define fake news to fight it. We must confront how fake news has evolved into fake law, fake political science, fake statistics, fake history and fake medicine, all packaged in hyperpartisan, hyperemotional rants by fake scholars. We must confront how fake news now undermines not just public debate’s factual foundations, but its very intellectual vocabulary.
React: firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter @oscarfbtan, facebook.com/OscarFranklinTan.
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